The Vodacom Stormers powered their way into the top four on the Super 14 log with an impressive 20-12 win over the high-riding Hurricanes at Newlands on Saturday.
Gavin Rich writes for Superrugby that the Stormers led 10-0 at half-time and were never headed in a match which they had to win to keep alive their challenge for a place in the semifinals. They sent the Stormers fans, who again numbered nearly 45 000, home in a wildly happy mood as they confirmed that their title aspirations are not a mirage, they are quite real. The Stormers have another four matches to play, three of them at home and the other against the Lions in Johannesburg, and will rate their chances of ending in the play-off bracket.
Indeed, the rate they climbed up the log with this win – they were ninth shortly before kick-off – the prospect of a home semifinal is not completely unrealistic.
It was a performance that had everything for the Stormers – in the early stages they scrummed impressively before loosehead JD Moller was injured and had to be replaced, and for long periods the Stormers forwards had the Hurricanes on the back-foot with their driving, this aspect of their game netting them their first try to Andries Bekker before half-time.
Then there was the skill of the Stormers handling when they did attack. They hardly made a mistake, and their ball retention skills, both in running and in their driving, was exemplary. But it was again the defensive organisation, and the defensive commitment, that stood out for the Cape team.
This was not a match where the opposition played poorly, for the Hurricanes made it clear from the kick-off that they were at Newlands to play. The physical effort they put into it, and the equally physical nature of the Stormers response, turned this game into a quasi-test match.
Then there was also the try which we might well describe as “the try that came from the end of the world” in the manner of one scored by France to win a series against the All Blacks in New Zealand in 1994.
It came off a Stormers counter-attack that started inside their own 22, Sireli Naqelevuki finding some space after a period of prolonged Hurricanes pressure before kicking infield, where the irrepressible Luke Watson was on hand to carry the move on before passing inside to Andries Bekker. The big lock then found Watson again, and Schalk Brits, surely the man of the match, was there to take it on and swallow dive his way over the line.
The converted try propelled the Stormers into a 20-0 lead, and after that it was always going to be a case of the Stormers having to hang on against a Huricanes team that did not give up until the final whistle blew.
It required a might defensive effort from the Stormers, and from the outset it was the defence that set them on the road to this win, the Hurricanes just never being allowed the space to really threaten with their big runners.
The Hurricanes did score two tries in the last 25 minutes, both coming off line movements as first Hoseah Gear went over on the right corner flag and then Conrad Smith did the same heading into the last 10 minutes.
Crucially, Jimmy Gopperth missed the conversion, as he did a kickable penalty attempt. Had those kicks landed, it might have been a much more tense dice at the death. The Stormers may have been helped by the fact that the referee, once Brian Mujati had joined Moller on the sidelines, had to order uncontested scrums. It meant the Hurricanes weren’t able to apply pressure to Stormers defensive scrums.
The Stormers started the match at a frenetic pace, and would have been frustrated at their inability to make their early territorial dominance translate into points on the scoreboard. In the middle stages of the first half the Hurricanes threatened on a couple of occasions, and Piri Weepu was only just denied as he chased down a bouncing ball.
Going into the last quarter hour of the half, however, the Stormers decided to drive the ball through their forwards, and it was after a protracted assault that Bekker reached out to dot down for the first try that put the Stormers 10 points clear at the break.
Tonderai Chavhanga pulled a hamstring trying to chase his own kick-ahead in the first half and will be out for at least a fortnight, and Moller has a hamstring injury that will put him in doubt for next week’s clash with the Highlanders.
Tries: Andries Bekker, Schalk Brits;
Conversions: Peter Grant 2;
Penalties: Peter Grant 2.
Tries: Hoseah Gear, Conrad Smith.
Conversion: Jimmy Gopperth.